Wings of a Bird: Managing Polarity as an Indigenous Social Enterprise

2020-03-18 Share story


As an Indigenous social enterprise and digital agency, we need to manage — what may often seem like — contradictory and opposing concepts, worldviews, and ideas that are challenging to navigate in our day-to-day work. Some of these include:

  • Indigenous Worldview ←→ Dominant Worldview
  • Hierarchical Leadership ←→ Organic Teamwork
  • Structured Work ←→ Personal Autonomy
  • Social Impact ←→ Business Operations
  • Preserve Team Culture ←→ Growth
  • Non-Indigenous ←→ Indigenous
  • Centralized ←→ Decentralized
  • Role Clarity ←→ Role Fluidity
  • Technology ←→ Nature
  • Social ←→ Enterprise

We are often faced with choices that might appear to be an "either-or" dilemma. However, considering a "both-and" perspective may amplify the best of both worlds to determine the most creative and collaborative solution. At Animikii, we are consistently presented with the question of how we manage polarity.

Managing Polarity

We were introduced to the concept of Polarity Management by Teara Fraser when we were describing our social enterprise as the wings of a bird. Teara put together a leadership challenge based on Animikii in partnership with Royal Roads University, where eight teams in the Masters of Arts in Leadership Program worked together to develop presentations that provided strategic recommendations for Animikii to support our growth. A similar theme amongst the responses was managing polarity. We connected with this perspective and wanted to share our thoughts on what it is and how it relates to what we do at Animikii.

There are existing frameworks, ideas, worldviews, and metaphors that can be helpful when thinking about managing polarity, including:

  • Holding Multiple Truths
  • Actor-Network Theory
  • Polarity Management
  • Two-eyed Seeing
  • All Our Relations
  • Breathing In/Out
  • Interdependent
  • Interconnected
  • Wings of a Bird
  • Infinity Symbol
  • Sun and Moon
  • “Both-And”
  • Balance
  • Flight

We describe polarity at Animikii as the two wings of a bird, interdependent and interconnected, with both needed for flight to be possible. By acknowledging this interdependence, we can manage the polarity of our social enterprise and strive for the best aspects of both perspectives (while avoiding the limitations of each).

Social. Enterprise.

One of Animikii’s toughest challenges is balancing our organizational sustainability as a business while also maintaining and scaling our social impact. Both efforts can appear distinct; however,  understanding and managing their interconnected relationship is essential to maintaining our success. We wouldn’t operate our business without our social impact focus. Yet, we cannot sustain meaningful impact without the support that comes from our revenue generation, business operations, and economic viability.

The very term “social enterprise” contains its own polarity between the words “social” and “enterprise”. Its use is gaining popularity in the business community, though definitions and descriptions may vary. Yet, there are innovators around the world who find a way to manage this polarity. Indeed, while managing our own polarity, we’ve felt the strain of balancing our impact and our business goals. For example, some years we gave back so much that it affected our profitability. Other years, we funnelled excess revenues into scaling our impact. Over the last couple of years, our team has given back over a thousand hours into meaningful, community-focused initiatives.

Since then, we’ve realized that maintaining a balance between profitability and giving back within our social enterprise is necessary for us to stay healthy and continue to grow. The Royal Roads leadership challenge nudged us to formalize our structure, operations, and mental model of how we see ourselves. One of the proposals expanded upon our “wings of a bird” analogy to the full body that represents our structure. This resonated with us (for obvious reasons) and resulted in us using the following image to explore and describe our governance. 

Wings of a Thunderbird


This image is a Thunderbird and it illustrates how we see our organizational structure. The image comes from our 2017 Social Impact Report, illustrated by Animikii lead designer, Mark Rutledge. It has become the visual representation to help describe our structure internally with staff as well as externally with partners, customers, and the public. 

To guide the bird, it needs a mind to make the complex cognitive, analytical, and experiential decisions required to calculate flight. This is the role of the  Board of Directors who are accountable for these functions.

To take off, and maintain flight, the bird needs two equally powerful wings. One wing shows the profitable operations that ensure our organizational sustainability as a business. The other wing represents our social impact efforts and what we aim to achieve as a social enterprise. Balance is required between both wings to maintain flight. While one wing could be more powerful, other parts of the bird would need to be able to make corresponding adjustments. Too much imbalance and the bird may not be able to fly.

To keep the bird healthy, energized, and alive, it needs a strong heart. This is where our people and impact circle contributes, guided by our Values.

The tail feathers are like the rudder of a boat or aircraft. They steer, maneuver, and provide stability for take-off and landing. This is in line with our approach to servant leadership and leading from behind.

Holistically, we create spaces for the mind, heart, wings, and tail of the business through this analogy of a bird in flight. Each of these individual components maintains key roles in our organizational resilience. Collectively, this allows us as Animikii, the Thunderbird, to create energy and thunder through the flight of our social enterprise. 

Scaling Up. Scaling Out.

There are several tools that we deploy at Animikii to ensure our integrity as we scale. The bird analogy is one of those tools. It encapsulates other aspects of who we are, like our Impact Circle governance, and our connection to our Values.

We’ve grown quickly as a team. From two to five, then 10 people and it won’t be long until we’re up to 20. How do we effectively scale-up our organization with integrity when we’re over 100 people? What about 1,000? If we pursue profit at the expense of our social impact, it could put the foundation of our model and identity at risk. Having the appropriate internal concepts, tools, and methodologies will help us scale with integrity.

Flight Among Innovators

The bird analogy is appropriate in the context of Animikii because our name means Thunderbird in Ojibwe. This analogy works for us in managing polarity; however, this may be a good fit for other social enterprises as well.

Expanding this thinking beyond a single organization, how can we all relate and interface with each other within other innovation ecosystems?

Let us know what you think! In the meantime, we’ll leave you with this stunning visual of birds flying together in a murmuration. These birds follow the same rules that we do: don’t crowd, fly to the center, and don’t crash.

March 18, 2020